Like so many restaurant workers across the city, Shanna Vatsaloo and Angelina Teo were laid off from their jobs when the region-wide shelter in place shut down dining rooms in San Francisco back in mid-March — Vatsaloo as a sous chef and Teo as a pastry sous chef, both at Alexander’s Steakhouse, the fine dining meat emporium. So, they did what many other entrepreneurial cooks around the Bay Area are doing: They started their own little food business. In their case, they’re selling homemade Singaporean food and delivering it to people’s homes all over San Francisco and in much of the East Bay.
Teo and Vatsaloo call their business Makan Place or, as they stylize it, Makanplacesf — “makan” being the word for “eat” in Malay, Singapore’s national language. (“Have you makan yet?” or “Let’s go get some makan” are both proper usages, Vatsaloo explains.) And for now, they’re running it as an Instagram-based business: Once or twice a week, they’ll post a single dish on the Instagram page, take orders through DM and payments via Venmo, and then on the designated day, they drive around San Francisco and the East Bay, dropping off whatever the dish of the day is — say, nasi lemak, the fragrant coconut rice dish, or laksa, the boldly pungent noodle soup. The chefs share an apartment in Chinatown, so customers can arrange to pick up their food there as well.
In a city that’s hungry for interesting new takeout options, Makan Place is a particularly exciting addition: San Francisco has never been known for having very many options for Singaporean food, even as interest in the cuisine of the country’s famed hawker centers might be higher than ever, in this post-Crazy Rich Asians world. (“People now know that Singapore isn’t in China!” Teo says.) The two chefs — childhood friends who grew up together and went to culinary school together in Singapore — say they’ve always felt sorely disappointed in the handful of Singaporean dishes they’ve tried around the city. The flavors always seemed muted — a distant cry from what they remember eating back home.
“How can we get a damn good bowl of laksa?” Vatsaloo says. “We don’t wish to tone down the flavors to match the local palate — in terms of spiciness, in terms of how much flavor or shrimp paste we use.”
Feeling homesick as they spent the first several weeks of the shelter in place sitting around their apartment, the chefs eventually cooked up the idea of bringing some of those iconic hawker stall foods to the dining public. It would be good practice, they thought, if they ever wanted to try to open a full-fledged Singaporean restaurant, or even just collaborate on a cookbook.
Their laksa ($22), for instance, is a thing of beauty. It comes studded with huge prawns, a soft-boiled egg, puffs of fried tofu, and slices of fish cake, all served in what Vatsaloo describes as “a prawn-flavored coconut gravy,” with a spicy-sweet, intensely flavorful sambal on the side that you can mix into the broth or use for dipping. It’s a style of the dish called Katong laksa — one of the most famous versions in Singapore — and for the noodles, the chefs use short, stubby rice pin noodles so that customers can eat the entire dish with a spoon, just like you’d do at a hawker stall in Singapore. It’s about as comforting a bowl as you can imagine.
Teo and Vatsaloo say they started Makan Place mostly just to have a creative outlet during this pandemic. When restaurants reopen, they still expect to go back to their old jobs at Alexander’s, but in the meantime, business has really picked up — in part thanks to a shoutout they got from SF Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho. For next week’s dish, they’re planning a wonton noodle dish, served with housemade char siu. Check Instagram to see when they start taking orders.